I am fairly certain that most folks believe that hands-free technology is safe to use while driving. Those folks will be surprised to learn that these popular new vehicle features may actually increase mental distraction, according to new research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. It appears three out of four drivers believe hands-free use is safe. This research can serve as guidance to manufacturers who increasingly market hands-free systems as safety features. The good news for consumers is that the research suggests that it is possible to design hands-free technologies that are less cognitively distracting.
In the study, a participant drives while research equipment monitors reaction times and gathers other data. A set of new University of Utah studies for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that hands-free, voice-controlled infotainment systems in vehicles can distract drivers more than was previously believed.
The results, which build on the first phase of the Foundation’s research conducted last year, suggest that developers can improve the safety of their products by making them less complicated, more accurate and generally easier to use – a point AAA hopes to use in working with manufacturers to make hands-free technologies as safe as possible for consumers. While manufacturers continue their efforts to develop and refine systems that reduce distractions, AAA encourages drivers to minimize cognitive distraction by limiting the use of most voice-based technologies. Bob Darbelnet, chief executive officer of AAA, stated:
We already know that drivers can miss stop signs, pedestrians and other cars while using voice technologies because their minds are not fully focused on the road ahead. We now understand that current shortcomings in these products, intended as safety features, may unintentionally cause greater levels of cognitive distraction.
Using instrumented test vehicles, heart-rate monitors and other equipment designed to measure reaction times, Dr. David Strayer and researchers from the University of Utah evaluated and ranked common voice-activated interactions based on the level of cognitive distraction generated. The team used a five-category rating system, which they created in 2013, similar to that used for hurricanes. The results show:
The study also separately assessed Apple’s Siri (version iOS 7) using insight obtained from Apple about Siri’s functionality at the time the research was conducted. Researchers used the same metrics to measure a broader range of tasks including using social media, sending texts and updating calendars. The research uncovered that hands- and eyes-free use of Apple’s Siri generated a relatively high category 4 level of mental distraction. To put all of this year’s findings in context, last year’s research revealed that:
Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, had this to say:
Technologies used in the car that rely on voice communications may have unintended consequences that adversely affect road safety. The level of distraction and the impact on safety can vary tremendously based on the task or the system the driver is using.
To assess “real-world” impact, Dr. Joel Cooper with Precision Driving Research evaluated the two most common voice-based interactions in which drivers engage – changing radio stations and voice dialing – with the actual voice-activated systems found in six different automakers’ vehicles. On the five point scale, Toyota’s Entune system garnered the lowest cognitive distraction ranking (at 1.7), which is similar to listening to an audio book. In comparison, the Chevrolet MyLink resulted in a high level of cognitive distraction (rating of 3.7).
Other systems tested included the Hyundai Blue Link (rating 2.2), the Chrysler Uconnect (rating 2.7), Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch (rating 3.0) and the Mercedes COMAND (rating 3.1). Mr. Darbelnet with AAA stated:
It is clear that not all voice systems are created equal, and today’s imperfect systems can lead to driver distraction. AAA is confident that it will be possible to make safer systems in the future.
This phase of the research highlights the variability in demands across all the systems tested. AAA is calling for developers to address key contributing factors to mental distraction including complexity, accuracy and time on task, with the goal of making systems that are no more demanding than listening to the radio or an audiobook. AAA also plans to use the findings to continue a dialogue with policy makers, safety advocates and manufacturers. To view the full report, “Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Vehicle II: Assessing In-Vehicle Voice-based Interactive Technologies,” and other materials on distracted driving, visit NewsRoom.AAA.com.
Source: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
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